On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 20, the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) will host ART PAPERS LIVE, a special collaboration with the eponymous Atlanta-based arts magazine featuring a talk from arts collective Slavs and Tatars. Birmingham may seem like a strange place to have a contemporary arts-based conversation about the power of language, but Slavs and Tatars should offer an intriguing new perspective on the city’s past, present and future.
Founded in 2006 as a book club, Slavs and Tatars evolved into a two-person arts collective focusing on the languages of the 300 or so cultures east of the Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. In the process, the collective examines the ways that different empires – whether they write in Arabic, Turkish, Latin or Cyrillic – impose their will on colonized peoples, determining the course of their culture through jarring shifts in the very composition of their language.
In an interview with Middle Eastern arts forum Ibraaz, Slavs and Tatars noted as an example three politicized shifts in language among the Soviet Union’s empire, between Latinizing under Lenin, replacing that with Cyrillic language under Stalin, and then reverting back to Latinized language after the fall of the Soviet Union. “You have this very tragic situation where three generations speak the same language, but can’t read or write the same book,” Slavs and Tatars said. “People become immigrants within their own countries, in some sense.”
As dour as conversations like those may seem on the surface, Slavs and Tatars’ practice is rooted in humor, which boils down complex ideas into playful, approachable discussions. “When you’re devoted to an area of the world as we are,” Slavs and Tatars said in the interview, “you have to understand that for most people – whether they’re in the Middle East or in the West – it’s an area that strikes them as obscure and remote. Humor is a way – in the same way that celebration, hospitality and sometimes pop culture are – to meet our audience halfway, so it’s a generosity.”
In addition to the olive branch of humor, Birmingham’s own history of colonization – most notably in the city’s historical relationship with U.S. Steel – should provide a tangible link to the seemingly distant peoples of Eurasia that Slavs and Tatars focus on. More to the point, the city’s turbulent history with civil rights and the politics of identity should make the connections much more immediate than it would be in most towns.
“Part of what’s exciting about bringing artists in from elsewhere is that they’ll have a fresh perspective on a history that everyone here is already familiar with, and it’ll hopefully help people to see it another way,” said Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the BMA’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
In addition to her collaboration with ART PAPERS, Al-Khudhairi located a collector who allowed the museum to borrow a Slavs and Tatars work in time for their talk. That piece, Rahlé for Richard, illustrates much of the collective’s passions in an extremely approachable way. The piece is a rahlé – a bookstand that holds religious texts at mosques – painted to look like a shouting mouth, complete with a long red tongue snaking out of it. Instead of meekly accepting these received words, Slavs and Tatars have their rahlé scream defiance, provoking a gut-level reaction that lays the groundwork for a more intellectual conversation about the nature of power, language and identity.
Critically, Al-Khudhairi is matching this piece from Slavs and Tatars with the museum’s own collection and local identity. “What I think is interesting is to look at their practice, which focuses on a certain part of the world, and how that can really complement conversations that we’re having at the museum. In relation to this in the gallery, [Rahlé for Richard] is going to be placed next to works by Lorna Simpson and Glenn Ligon, two artists that use language heavily in their work.”
The Lorna Simpson piece, Tense, features two images of a black woman’s back, with a number of tenses – past, past imperfect, present imperfect, past perfect, future perfect – suggesting the myriad possibilities of progress and its thorny relationship to history. Glenn Ligon’s companion work is a stenciled recitation, in oil crayon, of the prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, quickly blurring into illegibility.
“These two artists talking about identity and being black in America by employing language, and then having this piece [from Slavs and Tatars] – it’s a different place, but it’s still employing and thinking about the politics of language – I think that’s the introduction of what I’m interested in thinking about here at the museum,” Al-Khudhairi said. “How can we bring in other voices to help us understand the works we have in the collection, as well as put artists in conversation with other artists who normally maybe wouldn’t be talking to each other?”
As the art collective told Ibraaz, “We call it the metaphysical splits in the sense not of the splits of the leg, but the splits of the mind. How can you bring together in one page, one register, one voice, two things which are considered to be antithetical?”
If not exactly antithetical, the colonization of the Eurasian peoples and the Civil Rights Movement aren’t commonly linked together, but the combination of the two in this talk should provide fascinating insights into both subjects. Al-Khudhairi acknowledges the off-putting complexities of delving into the shifting phonemes, graphemes and letters of languages most Americans have no familiarity with, but heartfelt explorations of identity and place should ring especially true in Birmingham.
“We are trying to do interesting things and have interesting conversations in Birmingham right now,” Al-Khudhairi said. “It’s just a real, human conversation with people about art, not a glossy event that’s all about ticket sales. We want to be a platform for new conversations to happen, and find new ways to talk about Birmingham’s history.”
ART PAPERS LIVE will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20 at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The event is free to attend. For more information, call (205) 254-2565.